By Tony Kryzanowski
It didn’t take long for the new owners of Foothills Forest Products in Grande Cache, Alberta to put their distinctive mark on sawmill operations. And in doing so, they have solidified their commitment to employees—and the local community—that they will be around for the long term.
The new owners, B.C.’s Dunkley Lumber, has completed a major upgrade of the Foothills facility with the installation of a new Comact primary breakdown system that includes wave feeders, a log turner, and an optimized length infeed (OLI) with profiling capabilities and TBL shape sawing section.
There has also been a major overhaul of the entire residual system including the construction of a building to house new chip shaker screens, replacement and realignment of most main residual conveyors and a new dust extraction system.
The operator’s work station has been transformed from a cramped booth to a spacious, centrally-located and well-lit control room where production can be monitored on both lines in the sawmill. The beehive burner and legacy Heede log crane in the yard have also been removed.
Suffice to say that with the improvements made over the past year, employees are finding their work environment much more appealing.
Foothills Forest Products is a dimensional lumber sawmill and an anchor industrial operator in Grande Cache, a small community located about four hours northwest of Edmonton. The mill supports about 200 jobs in Grande Cache. The operation produces about 130 million board feet of lumber annually in dimensions from 1” x 4” to 2” x 10”, in lengths from 6’ to 16’.
Along with the acquisition of Foothills Forest Products, Dunkley Lumber also purchased Edgewood Forest Products in Carrot River, Saskatchewan and has been making strategic capital investments there as well, having recently installed a new Comact GradExpert computerized lumber grading system in their planer mill. A Comact GradExpert was installed in the Grande Cache planer mill in late-2019. Both systems use cutting edge artificial intelligence to improve accuracy on a continual basis.
As far as the Foothills Forest Products location is concerned, Kris Hayman, Dunkley Lumber’s Vice President for Solid Wood and Finance for Alberta and Saskatchewan, says that this capital investment is certainly one of the biggest that this two-line sawmill has ever seen. It represents a significant upgrade in technology as the processing equipment that made up the previous large log line was almost 30 years old.
Calling it a “generational advance in technology” at Foothills Forest Products, Hayman says that the Comact OLI/TBL system is able to produce fully profiled sideboards and uses curved sawing through the gang section, with the philosophy being that the cant is manipulated through fixed saws to optimize recovery.
“It’s sort of like comparing a modern supercomputer to your original Windows PC from back in the early 90’s,” Hayman says. “Its capabilities are incredible.”
The entire project was delivered on a turnkey basis by several divisions within the BID Group, which also owns a controlling interest in Comact. Additional services were supplied by Milltron Electric, of Prince George, B.C.
Parker Snyder, General Manager at Foothills Forest Products, says that workers at the sawmill view the recent ownership change and the follow-up major investment as “a new lease on life”.
“Folks were pretty darn grateful that Dunkley Lumber became involved in the site,” he says.
Employees have mentioned to him that they appreciate that they can now work at the sawmill until retirement, and that their children, who are also employed at Foothills Forest Products, have a bright future.
Darren Neufeld, who has been at Foothills for 16 years and was Project Superintendent on this investment, described it as a “pivotal moment” in the life of the facility.
“We’ve gone from spending several years prior to Dunkley Lumber’s purchase in a survival mode to installing the latest cutting edge technologies,” he says. “The workers who have been around for a while realize that it not only gives them a future, but it also gives them an opportunity to succeed.”
Staff at the sawmill were eager to embrace this advanced technology and are now playing more of a monitoring and troubleshooting role, while letting this modern processing equipment function in the way that it was designed.
“It has already changed the way that we think about what employees need from a training perspective and how they operate,” says Snyder. “It’s a much more refined process.”
Neufeld adds that a significant amount of thought went into the project design to “engineer out the leaks”—there is now a lot less waste material collecting in the facility from the manufacturing process, leading to an overall cleaner operation both inside the sawmill and in the yard.
Foothills Forest Products was able to de-commission its beehive burner because of a longstanding agreement it has with wood pellet producer, Pinnacle Renewable Energy, to take all its residuals, excluding the chips, for wood pellet production.
In addition to a much improved work environment, the investment by Dunkley Lumber in Foothills Forest Products is expected to have a significant impact on several performance metrics. Production throughput is expected to increase by 25 to 30 per cent and recovery by 25 per cent, while delivering an overall value uplift to the lumber products. The volume of J-grade lumber produced for the Japanese market is between 10 to 15 percent and when combined with their #2-and-better grade products, this represents as much as 85 per cent of their overall production.
The pursuit of high value recovery is a core philosophy of Dunkley Lumber.
The timber profile associated with the Foothills operating area consists of about 60 per cent lodgepole pine and 40 per cent spruce. Being located in a high elevation growing environment, the logs typically have a bit more taper and tight grain. Logs entering the mill measure on average about 12 centimetres (7”) in diameter, though Foothills’ high utilization rates ensure that top end diameters of down to 2 ¾” are brought in for processing.
Foothills Forest Products processes cut-to-length logs exclusively. The average log haul distance to the mill is between 30 to 50 kilometres.
The small log line features a HewSaw R200 breakdown unit and processes logs up to 5” in diameter, while the large Comact line processes logs 5” and up.
The recent major investment to the large log line follows on the heels of an upgrade to the small log line. Comact scanning, optimization, and log rotation were added on the infeed, and the small log line now has full scan and set optimization capabilities.
As logs enter the mill, they encounter two separate step feeders. Most of the sorting has been done in the cutblock by their logging contractors prior to delivery. Logs are then debarked through either a 22” or 27” Nicholson debarker prior to being scanned and sorted by size. Small logs proceed directly through the HewSaw R200. It can produce anything from a single 2” x 3” up to three 2” x 6” boards. After log processing, the lumber continues to an accumulation table.
Larger logs are collected in one of two bins prior to reaching Comact wave feeders which singulate the logs for processing. They are scanned and rotated and then fed into the Comact OLI where the log is first processed through chipping heads to open up a lumber face. The faced cant then encounters a profiling section capable of recovering up to two side boards from either side of the cant with chipping heads and vertical saws. The profilers work independently meaning that the number of boards recovered from either side could be different.
“You could have a scenario where you are recovering a 16’ long 1” x 4” on one side and a 16’ long 2” x 4” on the other side,” says Hayman. The previous breakdown unit could not produce any side lumber.
The cant is then rotated so that it is flat side down and processed through the shape sawing TBL gangsaw section, first encountering cylindrical chipping heads followed by fully optimized final processing of the cant, with lumber conveyed to the same accumulation table as lumber processed through the small log line.
Foothills Forest Products has been very impressed with how well the Comact OLI performed right out of the gate.
“To stand back and see the boards coming out of this machine from the exact same logs that we had a month ago, it’s a lot more useable lumber from a building standpoint,” says Neufeld. “We are making quality lumber right now and as it ramps up, we’ll make a lot more of it.”
Snyder adds that based on what they have witnessed so far, sawmill personnel feel that they have the ability to exceed the projected output gains established for the large log line.
All the lumber then proceeds through an unscrambler and lug loader followed by optimizing through an existing USNR board optimization section and then a trimmer. If a board requires remanufacturing, it is redirected to an existing USNR edger. Given how the Comact OLI functions, they anticipate that fewer boards will require reman edging. Lumber not requiring remanufacturing proceeds to the sorter bins. Once sorted, the lumber is stacked in preparation for kiln drying.
All components for the refurbished residuals collection system were also provided by BID Group. A second power transformer was installed by ATCO Group’s electricity division, to ensure that the entire sawmill was properly energized.
Given the significant efficiency gains being realized at Foothills Forest Products with this investment, they have now turned their attention to assessing additional opportunities to support the new line and optimize production flows—
and on the future.
On the Cover:
With equipment such as this Eltec harvester, Freya Logging, based in Prince George, B.C., has proven itself to be a versatile and diversified log harvesting contractor, handy attributes to have during a period of industry transition. Freya has demonstrated a willingness to take on a range of logging assignments in the B.C. Interior. Read all about the outfit beginning on page 8 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of Freya Logging).
Win/win deal = getting more fibre out of the forest
A new fibre supply agreement in B.C.’s Cariboo region is leading to better forest resource utilization for the Esk’etemc First Nation, and more fibre for wood pellet producer, Pinnacle Renewable Energy.
Freya Logging tackles range of harvesting jobs
Freya Logging has proven to be a versatile and diversified logging contractor in the B.C. Interior, taking on a range of harvesting work, including commercial thinning, with a variety of equipment.
Making a mark with mill upgrade
A major investment in Alberta’s Foothills Forest Products is being described as a pivotal moment in the sawmill’s history.
Not your typical wood pellets …
The new Skeena Bioenergy plant in B.C. is not a typical wood pellet operation—using proven European equipment, it is turning out high quality wood pellets from a feedstock of Western Hemlock, not SPF.
Training for work—and a career—in the forest industry
A recently developed program in northwestern Ontario is helping to train First Nations members as equipment operators for work—and a career—in the forest industry.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski notes that a recent wood biomaterial supply agreement with a major player in the global cosmetics industry is massively important to the forestry sector.